Celebrating Time - thrive UMC Official Blog

Celebrating Time

Friends, here we are already in the month of December, and I just want to know: what time is it? It is, of course, the first Sunday of the month, which means today is Breakfast church!  Except instead of breakfast, we’ll be having cookies and probably lots of things that are amazing, as long as you don’t judge them from a nutritional standpoint.  And for those of you who keep up with a thing called the Christian liturgical calendar, you know today is also the first Sunday of Advent! Then for the rest of you –you normal people- you’re all starting to the event scheduled for 22 days from now, aren’t you?

Of course we are, so we know exactly what we need to do!  Christmas is just around the corner, and we are now in full-on preparation mode!  So get the tree and string up the lights! Bake cookies and gingerbread and cover pretzels with almond bark.  Drop coins and dollar bills in a red pots outside our modern-day marketplaces while someone waves a bell at you. Swing by a Starbucks drive-thru for a festive peppermint mochaccino to fuel all of your day-long shopping extravaganzas, all the while singing along to Mariah Carrie’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ completely un-ironically.

Smile at everyone you pass, even when you happen to be silently cursing them for taking the parking spot you were eyeing.

Give more stuff to people who already have way too much stuff.

Watch all of the Christmas classic movies.

Do your charitable things.

Have at least one meal with every branch of your family tree that still talks to you, and possibly drink a lot.

Maybe go to a few extra church services and marvel at how cute baby God is.

Listen to Snoop-Dogg’s 2008 Christmas album, which includes such holiday classics as “A Pimp’s Christmas Song,” “Xmas Trees” (which, by the way, is not about evergreens), and my personal favorite, “When Was Jesus Born?” –Everybody has that one right?

Because, wow, you know that when Snoop Dogg gets involved, Christmas becomes an event in America, doesn’t it? And Christmas is indeed an event. Where everyone celebrates it from Snoop Dogg to Snoopy; in places as diverse as shopping malls, and on Hollywood movie screens, and around our hearths at home, to churches around the country, some with temporary petting zoos; and we celebrate by singing, and buying, and eating, and giving, and receiving big screen tvs, and by telling stories about a green Grinch, and magic reindeer, and animate snowpersons, and a kid who almost shoots his eye out with a Red Ryder BB gun, to, oh yeah, let’s not forget the story of a baby in a feeding trough.  Whew!  What a celebration! It’s got a little something for everyone, doesn’t it?

Well, except, of course, everyone who’s not a Christian.  In which case, Santa’s got no new iPhone Xs for you! ‘I guess you shouldda been baptized!’ #Blessed!

Which, by the way, can you imagine trying to explain Christmas to someone visiting your house, who has never heard of Christmas before?  Can you imagine trying to explain what the connection happens to be between a man in a flying sled who reverse-burglarizes the houses of over two million children on a single evening every year with gifts in proportion to their parents income, and a baby born outside of the ordinary biological processes? And oh yeah, and by the way there’s a tree, yep, in our living room coiled with electrically charged wires, and covered with glass things (that’s for the children), and the song you’re hearing on the radio is called “Santa Tell Me,” which is being sung by pop artist Ariana Grande.  If you’ve never heard of her, her last radio hit was about having so much sex she could hardly walk.  And those are stockings for giants, hanging on our gas fireplace… but no, we don’t put feet in them, which is the purpose of stockings, instead we fill them with candy… and I think it’s obvious why we do that…

Now, setting aside for the moment how wildly schizophrenic our version of Christmas happens to sound, we know that there are traditional explanations for all of these weird little things, don’t we?  Because in spite of how we often feel about the season, Christmas is not at all a timeless event that happens in a vacuum.  Instead, everything about it and how we celebrate it is grounded in history.  A very particular and weird history.  A history we’ve largely forgotten, or never cared to learn in the first place.

It’s a history that involves winter orgies, and legacies of drunkenness, and the expansion of the Roman Empire, and the wild shifting of religious politics. And throughout the course of this shifting history, Saturn, Jesus, Odin, and countless other deities each had their turn being worshipped, with bits of the cultic practices surviving in fragments throughout the ages even until now.  And then, as the religious temperament shifted gradually from magic to economics, many of these stories were retold and reimagined to sell toys and clothes by institutions like Macy’s department store and Starbucks.

Meanwhile, as individual families we all tend to celebrate it as if Christmas happens outside of time.  We celebrate it as if we can recreate the same experience year after year. A celebration that’s sacred because it transports us back to the spirit of our eternal childhood, where life was simpler and our wonder more intact.  It’s a place where we can go to escape political tensions, and family drama and work-stress, and real things that happen in real life.

But the original event of Christmas –the first and most dramatic historical happening – the event that inspired the whole legacy of Christmas and Christianity was that God entered history.  God forsook power and perfection and eternity and entered into the human story, in human flesh, in real time.  That’s the event that inspires our celebration –a thing that happened once, at a specific time, in a specific place, as a particular, single person.  God entered in and became present in our midst.  And not so that we could escape the nasty, violent business of being human either –God didn’t come as a rocket-ship from earth to heaven; but God came as the man Jesus, from Nazareth, so that we could grow in our own presence in this life and world.  So that we could grow in love and compassion and service and joy –with God and with one another and with the world.  In short, God became more present, so we could become more present, right here: in time and space.

Over the past month, we’ve been reading bits from Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I wanted to share with you a very brief passage which I think will help us prepare again for Christmas.  Please open your Bible or Bible apps with me to the 13th chapter of Romans, starting in the 8th verse.  It says this:

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.

In other words, here’s what Paul says: love each other. That’s what you need to do to prepare.  Give yourselves generously to one another, because you know what time it is: human history is moving toward salvation, and we’re getting closer! So stop trying to act under to cover of secrecy and privacy! Instead, get out there, in front of other people, to be with other people. Let your life be visible and exposed.  Put away your distractions and your escapist tactics and your shortcuts to pleasure.  But instead, “dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ” –which, in case this wasn’t clear yet, is the opposite of indulging your selfish, individualistic desires!

Now, if this sounds like some really fluffy, dreamy, ideological stuff, go back and read the first part of the chapter on your own because it’s really interesting.  The first part of the chapter is all about relating to political authorities, which is something we don’t have time to get into this morning.  But the point remains: you have to be engaged in the times.  Don’t miss the moment.  Don’t miss what’s going on in the world of political affairs, because somehow God is there.  Don’t close your eyes to the trends and movements of the culture, because they signal where we are going.  Don’t run away from suffering and all of the very human forms of drama, because the path of salvation can only be reached by traveling through that road.  Over and over and over again Paul is emphasizing: be present, be present, be present!   Right here! Right now! Because God is showing you something! And not only that, but at the same time, God is taking us somewhere.

For most of us, though we don’t realize it, the problem with the way we celebrate Christmas is that we celebrate a Christmas that doesn’t truly move us because it doesn’t take us anywhere.  It doesn’t show us anything new. For all the frenzy and business, it doesn’t  do anything.

Last week I was watching a Disney Christmas movie with the kids on Netflix, and in it Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Lewy had such a great celebrating Christmas that they all wished everyday could be Christmas.  And much to their delight, they woke up the next morning and the calendar next to their bed again read December 25th.  With laughter, they again tore downstairs and opened presents, and again devoured the delicious food, and again went and played in the snow.  And it was great –maybe not as great as the day before, but great nonetheless.  And they did it all again the next day, and the next, and the next, until the sameness spoiled the experience.  And I would say that the repetition revealed how empty their celebration had always been in the first place.  But then, in a moment of redemption, the three ducklings decided that, instead of trying to have fun for themselves, they’d try to help the other members of their family. And in this way, Christmas was made new –because they moved from having fun for themselves to being able to invest their joy in others.  Only in that way were they freed from the hell of repeated, diminishing pleasures –only through compassion could they recover their sense of joy amid a routine that had become monotonous.

And I think that’s what it looks like to ‘put on Christ Jesus’ –to be present in time not just for yourselves, but for God and for others. That’s where God is trying to move us in the event of Christmas.  To recognize that each person in their particular circumstance is new and unique and irreplaceably precious.  Therefore, it’s all something to be treasured.  We’re being moved to acknowledge how profound our need for connection and for one another has always been.  It’s the salvation and the sense of freedom that comes from being realized from our own pleasure impulses, to transcend ourselves and be available for those outside and beyond ourselves.

Therefore our response to the Christmas event where God became human, is to become human more like God. Let our hearts beat in real time toward a growing sense of acceptance and compassion.  Let our cravings be not for gifts but for generosity.  Let our celebration ignite in the recognition and wonder of this sacred, new moment –that history is not stuck on endless repeat but is unfolding in ceaseless revelation.  Let us wake up to the sense of the new time that’s dawning and be inspired toward action. Let the time itself be the gift –a fact you cannot miss when you spend it with those who are dying.  Do what you can to prepare for tomorrow, certainly, but life happens today. Always.

So, yes: we all know what time it is.  It’s Christmas time but this is a matter of an epoch, and not simply of a day.  We’ve been living in Christmas time since the moment of that initial incarnation –the event of God in the flesh.  And though the trajectory has progressed, it has not shifted in its focus. God hasn’t finished coming alive in the midst of our species, but instead we are the flesh of God, together, growing in our awareness and connection to one another. We’re in the midst of a historical becoming.  And we are a part of it.  Called to assemble and be present and act.

So in this new Advent season, our humble community has a grand invitation to share with all of you.  An invitation not to something that will happen in 22 days, but something we hope will be born in our midst about eight months.  We want to invite to incarnate the heart of our family and celebrate the gift of time together.

Our hope is that, by next August, all of you, and many more, will be prepared to commit to giving 40 hours of your life to a group of about 8 to 12 people, over the course of a year. Those groups will then commit to investing those 40 hours together, which averages out to just a little over three hours a month, to building relationships and to serving the larger community. How you divide up that time and use it beyond that will be largely up to the group.  We’re asking for 40 hours because that’s a significant amount of time, and it should remind you of a work-week.  Because relationships take work –time and energy- to grow.  So maybe you decide to meet for an hour a week before work over coffee, or maybe you decide to share a long dinner together one night a month, or maybe meet for an hour and a half twice a month, the point is that you spend time together.  And if you spend time together, we’re convinced that you will see great results –both in who you are and how you feel about your own life.  And in this way, we’ll share the gift of life and time with one another.

For those of us who have ever tasted what it’s like to feel alone, or believe that no one cares about you, or that you’re no good for anything, you know how vital deep and encouraging relationships are.  And especially in this world where it seems to be getting more and more difficult to make a meaningful connection –or even just to have a good conversation, we’re convinced we have a great gift to give those around us.  The gift of us.  So, as a part of this challenge, we’re encouraging you to identify people you know or might encounter, to join us on the challenge.

About two weeks ago, a friend of mine from college –whom I haven’t spoken to since graduation- randomly sent me a Facebook message saying he’d be in town for a few days before Thanksgiving, and asked if I wanted to get coffee with him.  And I thought that sounded great, and we met up and sat down to chat for like two hours. It was great.  Then before we left, I asked him, “so what made you think to send me a message?”

He told me that he made a New Year’s resolution last January that he was going to reconnect with at least a few of the people he had always meant to meet up with all these years, and make more time to invest in the people he cares about.

I heard that and I went (not out loud, because that would be weird), ‘wow, and I was one of the people you actually wanted to reconnect with?’  But that’s how it is, isn’t it –when someone lets you know that you mean something to them, it feels good!

And that’s what we have to extend to those around us: with the 40 Hour challenge, we’re encouraging you to reach out to some people around them and invite them into a time of connection and growth.  So if they know that you’ve selected them as someone you want to share this time with them, it will feel good.  It will feel like a gift, and not an obligation –because that’s what sharing time together is –it’s a gift!

Therefore, let’s put on Christ together, so that the whole world might share the blessing of this time we have, together.